Monday, May 5, 2008

Travelling to Hakone(箱根) and then Gora(強羅), from Tokyo

Hakone is a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists. During local holidays such as the Golden Week it is extremely hard to find vacancy in hotels or transportation short of driving there on one's own - it's a good thing I managed to find both but ideally you would want to make a reservation at least a month in advance. I used Odakyu Travel (小田急トラベル) for booking both the hotel and the train trip but I get ahead of myself. Let's get back to the actual travel...

The hotel I stayed in was in Gora, one of the "hot spring centers" which is about 500 meters above sea level. Going up the mountain is possible using the Hakone Tozan Railway, Japan's only mountain railway. The train follows an interesting path, going back and forth as it ascends the mountain and earning it its name - "switchback". The trip up the mountain takes less than an hour and Gora is the final stop. As there is only one line serving the stops on the mountain the train is almost always full to capacity. The first stop of the line is Hakone-Yumoto (箱根湯本) which is where I boarded the train. Of course this meant getting to Hakone-Yumoto first.

Odakyu has a regular Semi-Express service called "Romance Car" (ロマンスカー) which runs between Shinjuku and Hakone-Yumoto covering the distance in about an hour and a half. There are a few different types of trains used ranging from relatively old (called EXE which literally stands for "Excellent Express") to put in service less than a few years ago (called VSE). All trains have reserved seats, a bar, menus to order food from, and some like the VSE also offer a really nice view as the train is controlled from the "second floor" meaning there is a huge window in the first and the last car to watch the outside.

Waking up around 6:30 am I was in Gora around 10:30 am which is not so bad when one considers how radically different the two locations are - from tight, crowded streets of Tokyo to open mountains. Tomorrow, onto describing Gora and the hotel (which I do a disservice by just calling it a hotel - it was more like an experience ;) I will give a hint - think Kimonos).

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